There’s always been a part of me that has forever envied those who are able to say, in 4 words or less, ‘I am from (insert city and/or country here).
I’m from Nigeria.
Even typing the words, I can hear a small niggling voice in the back of my head snorting at that statement. What the voice wants me to say, to clarify, is that my parents are from Nigeria. Or better yet, I’m of Nigerian origin. But see the thing is, people that say that sort of thing have always irked me. Why can’t you just be from somewhere?
I don’t recall Nigeria much. I recall the holidays spent there during my childhood. I remember the booming sounds of the knock-outs (small fireworks) as they were set off over the Christmas holidays, the taste of those flowers with the edible nectar in my grandmother’s front garden, the taste of Cabin Biscuits, and the ‘kwenus’ heard at almost every gathering of adults in the village. What I mean to say is that I don’t recall living in Nigeria. We began moving around when I was around 5 years old, and I don’t remember a single thing other than the layout of our house in Port Harcourt. I’ve always had a strangely detailed memory for the layout of buildings.
As far back as I can remember, I’ve disliked the question ‘where are you from?’ When I was younger, around middle school age, my dislike of it came from a feeling of shame or embarrassment associated which I felt was associated with my country of origin. Nigeria wasn’t exactly the ‘it’ country to be from when surrounded by American, British, and European expatriates in an international school in Saudi Arabia (or The Land of the Arabs – à la my 6 year old self). There were two standard responses to people being hit with my ‘Oh I’m from Nigeria’. There was the look of surprise (presumably from my not having said some state in America – my American accent game was on another level in those days) and the ‘Nigeria? Ohhh Kanu, Okorocha!!’, which generally came from the Arabs. The former I received from white and black Americans alike. I eventually learnt to simply say that I had been born in Nigeria or my parents were Nigerian. Back then, my discomfort with having to answer The Question stemmed almost solely from my embarrassment at not being from one of the more ‘common’ countries, like America.
I went through a sort of cultural awakening or renaissance in high school. We moved country and, yet again, I was presented with another opportunity to reinvent myself. Chelsea in England was to be fearless, assertive, and not so damn shy. I would make friends easily, be surrounded by a gaggle of giggling girls and close cohorts at any one time.
I couldn’t force myself to become the new it girl in school any more than I could force myself to stop reading everything I could get my hands on. Now, you must understand, I didn’t want to become this new person to gain any sort of popularity. No, my main goal was always purely acceptance. I didn’t want to be that girl from Nigeria or the African girl that I had been in The Land of the Arabs.
On my first day at my new school I met the girl who has proven to be one of my closest friends. The type so close you just know you’ll never be able to shake them off no matter what you do in life. We’ll call her X.
X and I hated each other from the get-go.
I had been trying so hard to be the new Chelsea, to not let anyone see any bit of Chelsea in Saudi, because she had been such a vulnerable and reclusive little girl. X did not care for Chelsea in England at all. Our personalities clashed almost instantaneously. We’re too alike, you see. As I inevitably and gradually let go of trying so hard to embody Chelsea in England, we grew to understand each other. It took an entire year, but we got there eventually. And in beginning to understand her, my journey to acceptance of my background and culture began. Watching her, listening to her, the way she proudly asserted that she was Nigerian, the way she never attempted to don any sort of American or non-Nigerian accent constantly amazed me. Despite having British citizenship, she was one of the most Nigerian people I had ever met. She made it okay for me to assert that I was Nigerian, even though I couldn’t quite shake the American accent I’d been grooming for years. It was suddenly funny, and not an embarrassing slip-up, to use Igbo or pidgin words/terms in a classroom full of white Americans or Brits. She made it okay to be Nigerian.
It’s funny the effect people can have on your life without even having an inkling of what they’ve done.
It’s now been two years since I graduated high school. I’ve joined Afro-Carribbean at university, wear head-wraps with increasing frequency, and welcomed the ensuing afro after having stopped relaxing my hair.
I still don’t like The Question.
As much as I’ve embraced Igbo culture, Nigeria remains that place I spend a week or two during the Christmas holidays. What’s changed now, though, is the loss of ease when speaking to my cousins in Nigeria. When we were younger, the fact that my upbringing had been vastly different to theirs was concealed by a childish excitement at seeing each other after so many years. We spent every day of that week or two weeks playing ludo, stealing food from my grandmother’s kitchen, and gossiping about family affairs. As we’ve all gotten older, it’s become harder to hide the facts that I’ve never heard of the slang they use, don’t have the same friend circle as they do, and don’t sound the same as they do. My developing a British accent and going vegan, a diet almost incomprehensible by most of my family members, has certainly not helped to bring us closer in any way. This divide, this elephant in the room, that has been growing between us over the years has begun to stifle the air out of our relationships. They are Nigerian. They know of the history of our country. I know that Buhari is the current president of Nigeria. They know what it means for an event to be ‘dry.’ I know what banter means. This divide, coupled with the fact that I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been to Nigeria after having moved away, has only fed my dislike of The Question.
How can one be from a country that he/she barely remembers? How can I be Nigerian when I know next to to nothing of Nigerian history and don’t usually sound Nigerian (except when angry – my father has always said it’s near impossible to properly convey anger in the white man’s accent). My parents are Nigerian – they’re prone to recalling funny anecdotes from their upbringing in Nigeria or discussing family issues from back in Nigeria. They have and always will consider Nigeria to be home. Home, to me, is either London or The Land of the Arabs, where my parents continue to live. How can I be Nigerian when I think of Nigeria as a place I go to spend week-long holidays in December every 4-5 years?
I understand Igbo. I’ve lived in England for about 6 years now, but I’m not English. I was raised in Saudi Arabia, but I’m not Saudi. Before being evacuated due to Katrina, we lived in America for a short while but I am most definitely not American. I would say I identify most with the the British nationality, but how can you be from a country for which you don’t have a passport?
I’m from Nigeria, but I’m not from Nigeria. I have had only Nigerian passports. But those passports are riddled with visas and permanent residencies that have allowed me to call other countries home for as far back as I can remember.
I begun with the above TED talk from the fantastic Taiye Selasi because I think she comes closest to resolving this internal conflict of mine.
If this post was to end in some sort of resolution between me and The Question or my finding an answer to The Question which would allow me to not feel like I’m bluffing, then I’m out of luck. I don’t know, now, how to respond to that question any better than I did before I began writing this post.
Featured image taken from: http://www.aitonline.tv/